Still Pictures: On Photography and Memory by Janet Malcolm 2022

I’m of several minds about this book, written by one of our best cultural and literary commentators and published after her death at the age of 87 in 2021.

I’ve loved several of Malcolm’s books finding her observations to be discerning and her writing to be inspired.  This book, however, seems to suffer from the fact that she was quite ill while writing it and ultimately unable to finish it.  As such, it’s not quite up to her usual standards, an observation I’ve made in the past about at least two ‘written while dying’ memoirs, one by Christopher Hitchens and the other by Oliver Sacks.  Perhaps there should be a law preventing the publication of last works that the author hasn’t signed off on?

This book originated in the tension between Malcolm’s lifelong interest in photography and her distrust of memory especially when it applied to the writing of autobiography.  She refers to her memories as ‘the original sin of autobiography’ and in another chapter writes that ‘most of what happens to us goes unremembered. The events of our lives are like photographic negatives. The few that make it into the developing solution and become photographs are what we call memories.” and in another place she refers to ‘memory’s willful atavism‘.

Up against this distrust of memory and its ability to provide an objective record of the past, she introduces each chapter with a photograph of either a family member, a childhood friend, or a place where she did some growing up.  The photographs are undistinguished and were mostly found lying in a box in the closet.  Yet these photographs rekindle memories and specific events that had been lost to her for years.

Her writing about friends in her childhood and adolescence is powerful, and her observations about her parents are espcially moving.  With reference to the latter, she writes “Do we ever write about our parents without perpetrating a fraud?  Doesn’t the lock on the bedroom door permanently protect them from our curiosity, keep us forever in the corridor of doubt?”  Those two sentences alone are sufficient reason to read this book!

Reading this semi-autobiography, I had two powerful reactions.  First, I realized how much of the memories of my childhood I had lost.  Those memories are there, witness the fact that coming across a class photo from 4th or 5th grade several months ago, I could name every one of my classmates except for the very tall girl at the end of the top row.  Malcolm’s book brought back many of those memories—school, camp, family vacations, my sister and parents, and that’s another good reason to read this book.

The second reaction I had is that unknown to me and totally random, Malcolm and I have traveled many of the same roads, albeit starting from very different places.  Her parents left Czechoslovakia in 1939 on one of the last boats out of Hitler’s Europe and left behind their Jewish identity while also failing to assimilate very successfully.  I was born a generation later of American born Jewish parents.  She lived on the Upper East Side in a Czech ghetto. I grew up in suburban Chicago.  Yet we both spend time in Ann Arbor; we both had an attachment to Wilmot, NH and Pleasant Lake; we both spent time in Pownal, Vermont; and we  both were fascinated with bookmarks.

Maybe that’s why, at the end of the day, I’m recommending this book.  If you grew up in the 1950’s, it will take you back to your childhood while you wonder at the mind and writing of the late Janet Malcolm.